Our ancestors were suffering. The golden ghetto of Goshen, so lovingly set up by Yosef and Yehuda, has become a concentration camp. Into this severe state of affairs comes the first rays of light. God has told Moshe that he will be the vehicle for the redemption. Just before he sets into motion the Exodus, God informs him of a remarkable reality, ‘Yisrael is My child, My firstborn (Shmot 4:22).’ Besides the emotional lift this declaration makes, what exactly is God telling Moshe? Let’s explore three approaches to this radical idea.
Let’s begin with a Midrash referred to by Rashi:
MISHCHU MAGEN (literally ‘let the shields be greased’ so that enemy swords would slip off, but allegorically ‘his MASHIACH is protected’, Yeshayahu 21:5), Rav Kapra taught that the BECHORA went to Ya’akov, when they (Ya’akov and Esav) were playing, God acceded to the content of their game, the BECHORA went to Ya’akov. How do we know? ‘Thus said the Lord: B’NI BECHORI YISRAEL!’ The verse states, ‘and he got up and he left, and Esav rejected (YIVEZ, perhaps ‘denigrated’) the BECHORA’ (Breishit 25:34, Breishit Raba 63:14).
So, our verse confirms the transaction between Ya’akov and Esav those many years ago. Clearly, that’s not what Moshe was announcing to Pharaoh, but the Midrash wants us to know that the deal was ratified by God. The possession of the Divine birthright of Avraham Avinu was indeed on the table during those fraught negotiations. Our Patriarch became God’s BECHOR, and passed it on to us.
There’s another fascinating approach presented by the Ohr Hachayim. This profound commentary is intrigued by the timing of this announcement to Moshe. He asks: Why is the prophecy that the Jewish firstborn would not be killed, recorded out of context? In other words, why does God inform Moshe, and maybe Pharaoh (but we don’t know when or even if Moshe told Pharaoh, I assume Moshe told him before the tenth plague, end of chapter 10), at this point in the story before any negotiations that the Jews are God’s BECHOR and, therefore, free from the tenth plague?
The Ohr Hachayim answers:
It appears that God in His wisdom provided Moses with some information which would temper his disappointment at the long process of the broken promises by Pharaoh. There was a danger that when Moses observed that Pharaoh remained obstinate despite the plagues God inflicted upon him, he would become fed up with his mission. God therefore informed him of something that would not happen until the end of the process. As long as the plague of killing the firstborn Egyptians had not occurred, Moses had no reason to believe that God’s timetable had been upset.
This, of course, opens up the entire question: Why were there 10 plagues? God knew that Pharaoh wouldn’t relent until plague ten. Why not cut to the chase, and get on with the business of the Exodus? Instead, we have months, probably six, of plagues. Great question, and I will deal with it in next week’s article. For now, we must be content with the answer of the Ohr Hachayim, the announcement at this point was for the benefit of Moshe and his psychological well-being.
Finally, and I believe most importantly, answer number three. So, what is the significance of this announcement? To inform Moshe, the B’nei Yisrael in Egypt and us of a reality of ultimate importance: We represent God in the world. Once Moshe is informed that we are God’s BECHOR, he knows that we have a cosmic duty that relates to the other children of God, all humanity.
It would be easy to think that this news would mean gifts and double portions. It’s a great privilege to be the BECHOR. Easy, but wrong! With great power, comes great responsibility! Thank you. Spiderman.
We, clearly, have a job to do. The Kedushat Levi expresses it this way: What this really means is that the Jewish people are the conduit through which God channels His largesse to the world. That’s cool, but puts added pressure on the requests we make when daven.
I especially like the way Reb Aharon Lichtenstein explained it:
While this BECHORA is accompanied by certain privileges, it is primarily a matter of commitment and responsibility. The term AM SEGULA a chosen (I would have said ‘treasured’ or ‘precious’) nation, comes together with AM KADOSH a holy nation (Shmot 19:5-6), indicating that the special status of the Jewish people is contingent on proper behavior.
And as Rav Sacks OB”M said it:
The people of whom God said, ‘My child, My firstborn, Israel’ knows itself to be royalty. That may be a privilege. It may be a burden. It is almost certainly both… We can live it. We can abandon it. But it is a choice we cannot avoid, and it has immense consequences. The future of the covenant rests with us.
In light of the position of the Kedushat Levi, I would add ‘and the fate of the world’. Many firstborns, my sister included, often announce loudly and irritatingly, ‘But it’s not fair!’ And they’re right. It doesn’t appear to be fair that more is expected of the first born. However, fair and foul can’t usually be clearly understood, unless you’re playing baseball, and even then, it often takes slow-motion replay to get it right.
We Jews have been dealt this hand. I pray that we live up to the role. After all, it’s only the fate of the universe at stake.